President Bush's nationally televised address on immigration on Monday night was intended as a grand gesture to revive his collapsing presidency, but instead he has plunged the Republicans into a political centrifuge, breaking the party down into its raw elements, whose collisions are triggering explosions of unexpected and ever greater magnitude.
The nativist Republican base is at the throat of the business community. The Republican House of Representatives, in the grip of the far right, is at war with the Republican Senate. The evangelical religious right is paralysed while the Catholic church is a mobilising force behind demonstrations by Hispanic immigrants. Every effort Bush makes to hold a nonexistent Republican centre generates an opposing effect within his party.
Bush's victory in 2004 depended on the management of highly volatile constituencies: the religious right was shepherded by referendums against gay marriage; the abortion issue was used to elevate Catholic conservatives and isolate progressive-minded bishops; nativists were captivated by hosts of enemies in the whirlwind of September 11.
Bush's political handlers were determined to suppress immigration as an issue. Hispanics made up 14% of the population in 2004, and Bush's ability to capture Catholic and Hispanic voters was one of the decisive factors in winning a second term. However, as Bush's neoconservative foreign policy has been discredited, a virulent form of isolationist nationalism has filled the vacuum. Bush conflated the fears arising from September 11 with Iraq, but the fear of the other is now being directed at immigrants - a nativist tradition that goes back to the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s and the Ku Klux Klan.
The house has approved a bill that would make it a felony to hire or help undocumented workers. On the right this is considered a precondition for the deportation of more than 11 million such workers, and anything short of this solution is branded a treasonous "amnesty".
Bush's modest proposal to allow undocumented workers to stay and eventually be granted citizenship has incited contempt on the right. His dispatch of thousands of troops to the border with Mexico was derided as a "Band Aid" by California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified the church as the moral guardian of immigrants and the proponent of social services and citizenship. Last month, when the Family Research Council, a prominent religious-right group, tried to summon support for the house bill, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference warned it would break away, and the religious right was stymied.
The Republican party as a whole is repeating the self-destruction of the California Republican party. In 1994 the governor, Pete Wilson, advocated proposition 187, which threatened to deny social services, healthcare and education to undocumented workers, and it aroused the Hispanic sleeping giant. From that moment California became one of the safest Democratic states, and only an anomaly like Schwarzenegger, an immigrant, could emerge as a viable statewide candidate. Ronald Reagan's party is a thing of the past.
The delicate coalition Bush put together in 2004 is shattered. And in losing control of the immigration debate he has lost something more - the capacity to speak for the American idea. In 1938 Franklin Roosevelt confidently spoke to the nativist Daughters of the American Revolution. "Remember, remember always," he said, "that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists."
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is the author of The Clinton Wars. email@example.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006